RVA Legends — Allen & Ginter

RVA Legends — Allen & Ginter

A look into the history of Richmond places and people that have disappeared from our landscape.

[IOR] — Allen & Ginter, Manufacturers of Cigarettes and Smoking Tobacco — Office and Factory
[IOR] — Allen & Ginter, Manufacturers of Cigarettes and Smoking Tobacco — Office and Factory

Sixth & Cary Streets NW (Warehouse)
600 East Cary Street (Stemmery)
Seventh & Cary Streets SW (Factory)

P. H. Mayo may have been the first, but Allen & Ginter became the king.

(NCPedia) — Harper’s Weekly illustration, January 15, 1887 issue — showing women hand-rolling cigarettes in a Virginia factory
(NCpedia) — Harper’s Weekly illustration, January 15, 1887 issue — showing women hand-rolling cigarettes in a Virginia factory

This establishment, which was the first of its kind in Virginia, was founded in 1865, by Messrs. Allen & Ginter. They employ eleven hundred hands, nearly all of whom are girls, have eighteen commercial salesmen on the road, and their goods are known all over the world. This was the first Cigarette Factory in the United States that employed female help in manipulating Cigarettes, and the superiority of this labor over all other is attested by the fact that all other Cigarette factories are following the example of Messrs. Allen & Ginter.

(VCU) — 1889 Baist Atlas Map of Richmond — Plate 1 — showing the warehouse (left), stemmery (center), & factory (bottom) locations
(VCU) — 1889 Baist Atlas Map of Richmond — Plate 1 — showing the warehouse (left), stemmery (center), & factory (bottom) locations

They occupy three large brick buildings, each 70×150 feet, five stories high, which gives them the vast amount of 157,500 square feet of floor space. The two buildings at the corner of 7th and Cary streets, are the manufacturing and shipping departments, while the one at the corner of 6th and Cary streets is used exclusively for the storage and preparing of leaf.

August 2019 — looking towards former warehouse location at Sixth & Cary Streets NW
August 2019 — looking towards former warehouse location at Sixth & Cary Streets NW

The entire works are fitted throughout with the most modern machinery, and other appliances, for the successful prosecution of their immense business. The establishment is a paragon of neatness, and the most complete system reigns throughout the premises. They have branch houses in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and London.

August 2019 — looking towards former stemmery location at 600 East Cary Street
August 2019 — looking towards former stemmery location at 600 East Cary Street

Their production is chiefly fine grades of Cigarettes and Smoking Tobacco. Their Cigarettes have a reputation that has made them a standard article in all parts of the world. They have received the highest awards of merit at the great exhibitions in Philadelphia, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne and New Orleans.

August 2019 — looking towards former factory location at Seventh & Cary Streets SW
August 2019 — looking towards former factory location at Seventh & Cary Streets SW

In addition to their immense sale in this country, they export them to all parts of the world, and there is scarcely a country in which they are not sold. While the sale of adulterated brands of many American manufacturers has been prohibited in Great Britain, their absolutely pure goods have attained the largest popular sale ever known in Cigarettes in that country, with a steadily increasing demand.

(EBay) — Allen & Ginter Tobacco Reverse Painted Glass Sign, circa 1890
(EBay) — Allen & Ginter Tobacco Reverse Painted Glass Sign, circa 1890

Their Cigarettes are made with different degrees of strength to suit all tastes. They use the tasteless French rice paper, made in France expressly for them. It has no smell, and its purity is such that in burning scarcely an atom of ash remains.

(Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden) — advertisement for Richmond Gem, Richmond Straight Cut, & Our Little Beauties
(Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden) — advertisement for Richmond Gem, Richmond Straight Cut, & Our Little Beauties

Among their leading brands, are “Richmond Straight Cuts,” “The Pet,” “Dubec” (genuine Turkish), “Virginia Brights,” “Opera Puff,” “Our Little Beauties,” “Perfection,” “Richmond Gem,” “Sunny South,” “Dixie,” and “Dainties.”

Among their Smoking Mixtures, are “Imperial,” “Richmond Gem,” “ Richmond Straight Cut, No. 1,” “Perique,” “Turkish,” “Richmond Mixture, Nos. 1 and 2.”

Cut Plug Tobaccos. “Cable Coil,” “Dixie Chop,” “Richmond Cavendish, Nos. 1 and 2,” “Imperial Cavendish,” &c, &c. Granulated Tobaccos. “Matchless,” “Buds and Blossoms,” “Dixie.” and “Killickinnick.”

(Find A Grave) — John Frederick Allen
(Find A Grave) — John Frederick Allen

In 1882, Mr. Allen, the senior partner, retired, and Mr. Lewis Ginter admitted Mr. John Pope into co partnership, continuing under the old firm name. No firm in existence is more liberal to its employees, or mindful of their interests. Messrs. Ginter and Pope are two of Richmond’s most progressive and representative business men. [IOR]

(Find A Grave) — Lewis Ginter
(Find A Grave) — Lewis Ginter

Allen & Ginter succeeded in dominating the cigarette market in large part due to Lewis Ginter’s singular business acumen. Not only did he create a successful blend of bright and burley tobaccos for a tempting, tasty smoke, he also knew how to market his ciggies. [CIGC]

(Rocket Werks RVA Cigarette Cards)
(Rocket Werks RVA Cigarette Cards)

Starting in 1875, Allen & Ginter became the first tobacco company to issue colorful trading cards with each pack of smokes. Originally, the intent was practical, to stiffen the soft cigarette packs, but by adding a colorful advertising plug, they set off a collector craze that drove sales and forced the industry to follow suit. (Collectors Weekly)

Unfortunately, Ginter’s skills were not universal, and it cost him.

(U. S. Patent & Trademark Office) — diagram from James Albert Bonsack’s U.S. patent 238,640, granted March 8, 1881
(U. S. Patent & Trademark Office) — diagram from James Albert Bonsack’s U.S. patent 238,640, granted March 8, 1881

As mentioned above, Allen & Ginter’s factory output was all derived by hand. Rolling cigarettes was time-consuming, required a large labor force, and limited production. As cigarettes became more popular with the smoking public, tobacco companies started looking for ways to automate the process. Allen & Ginter sponsored a competition for a solution, which was won in 1881 by 22-year-old American inventor James Bonsack.

(PeoplePill) — James Albert Bonsack, sporting a smug “I’m so smart” expression that makes you want to smack him
(PeoplePill) — James Albert Bonsack, sporting a smug “I’m so smart” expression that makes you want to smack him

Bonsack produced a machine that rolled a single long cigarette that was then cut into separate pieces. However, the technology was new and finicky, requiring lots of tinkering to keep it operational. In a singular example of not being able to read the tea leaves, Allen & Ginter elected not to use the device, preferring to stay with their tried and true process.

Enter everyone’s favorite tobacco villain, James Buchanan Duke, President of American Tobacco Company.

(Duke University Libraries) — James Buchanan Duke
(Duke University Libraries) — James Buchanan Duke

Duke saw the promise of the Bonsack Machine and immediately inked a deal for its exclusive use. American Tobacco Company actively worked with Bonsack to improve the device, which eventually came to dominate the industry. It gave Duke a powerful competitive advantage over his rivals and led to Ginter’s surrender in 1890. Allen & Ginter was reduced to a being a subsidiary of the new American Tobacco Company Trust, led by Duke as its new president. [CIGC]

(Vintage Richmond) — showing the Imperial Tobacco Company building that replaced the former Allen & Ginter warehouse in 1904, itself demolished in the late 70s
(Vintage Richmond) — showing the Imperial Tobacco Company building that replaced the former Allen & Ginter warehouse in 1904 at the NW corner of Sixth & Cary, itself demolished in the late 70s

As for the Allen and Ginter locations, it is difficult to pin down when they were built and when they fell, but their operations would eventually relocate to the American Tobacco Company’s new factory on North Twentieth Street. The former Allen & Ginter buildings were picked up by other tobacco enterprises, and their glory days were over.

(Allen & Ginter is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


Print Sources

  • [CIGC] The Cigarette Century. Allan M. Brandt. 2007.
  • [IOR] Industries of Richmond. James P. Wood. 1886
  • [RVCJ03] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1903.

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